Sunday, October 10, 2021
Lectionary 28, Year B
Prayer of the Day
Almighty and ever-living God, increase in us your gift of faith, that, forsaking what lies behind and reaching out to what lies ahead, we may follow the way of your commandments and receive the crown of everlasting joy, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 Turn from injustice to the poor, that you may live
Hebrews 4:12-16 Approach the throne of grace with boldness
Mark 10:17-31 Teaching on wealth and reward
Title: Manipulation in God’s Economy
Manipulation. That’s our word for the day. Not sure what kind of reaction you have to this word. Especially in our current state of the world with whistleblowers pointing out how Facebook uses algorithms to manipulate its users’ online experience, or how supposed news agencies manipulate their reporting so that myth and, even untruths, appear as fact, or how politicians manipulate the narrative to create further divisiveness – although that last one is nothing new, right?
For me, manipulation has been sort of an occupational hazzard in a number of my careers and professional positions. Not as a manipulator, but as one who is trying to be manipulated by the clientele that I am working with and for. It’s almost like I am attracted to situations that are rife with reasons and opportunities for people to manipulate me. But that’s a question for my therapist.
Back in my days as a classroom teacher, students were trying to manipulate me all the time. Sometimes even the parents got involved. One set of parents tried to manipulate a better grade for their son until they realized that the C he received for my class was itself a gift in light of the fact that he should have failed. Being a teacher of theatre opened up wider the opportunities for manipulation because in addition to grading, I was also casting. I could always tell when auditions were approaching because suddenly everyone was so much nicer around me and to me. Boy did that change after the cast list went up. As a professional theatre artist, it wasn’t much different.
And now as a pastor there is a fairly consistent flow of folks who come to our door asking for one form of help or another. And while I am not heartlessly condemning all as manipulators. Some are in deep need and have issues that I, on behalf of you the congregation, am more than happy to assist them with. However, every person, every story has to be scrutinized and judged for its manipulation factor. It is a position I hate to be in. (I recent petitioner felt it would be helpful to have a Bible in his hands while making his request.) I really want to start from a place of trusting someone until they prove themselves untrustworthy. But, sad to say, I am now someone who must start at the opposite end of the trust spectrum and then be convinced that this is not a manipulation.
Perhaps all this life experience has me keying into the manipulation that is going on in today’s readings. Not to mention that entire 10th chapter of Mark that we heard from last week, and will hear from again next week. But more on that later.
The prophet Amos certainly knows about manipulation. This herdsman living in Judah in the 700’s BC – probably a ranch owner, rather than ranch hand by today’s standards – heads north to the northern kingdom of Israel and becomes a prophet a spokesperson for God. And boy does he let the people know that God is not happy with them. He’s not manipulating, he’s just telling the truth as revealed to him from God.
It is a time of great prosperity in Israel – well, prosperity for some, but not for everyone. The rich and powerful are manipulating the justice system in their favor. They are manipulating the economic system resulting in not just increased wealth for themselves, but also to the detriment of the lower classes, some are losing the farms and properties that have been in their families for generations.
If you saw the news story of the Bruce family of California this past week, heard the account of a black family being unjustly stripped of their valuable beachfront property 100 years ago, only to now, finally, have it restored to their family, you know that the sins of ancient Israel are neither limited to the ancient world or to one nation. The manipulation that Amos calls out is very much prevalent in our land today.
So with humanity’s propensity towards manipulating systems and institutions in our favor, the rich man who comes to Jesus in today’s gospel reading is no surprise. But to be clear, he is not testing Jesus like those Pharisees of last week. Jesus saw their question for what it was, further manipulation of the law that they had interrupted to sway in their favor. And Becca Seely covered this beautifully last week. No, this rich man comes to Jesus quite sincerely. Asking, seeking an answer. Okay, maybe all that “Good Teacher” stuff is a little manipulative, buttering Jesus up. (Yes, I can certainly relate to that from my classroom days.) But at the heart of it, he is being real. Jesus senses his honest longing and we even read that Christ looks on the man with love. But the man gives us a glimpse of where lies the focus of his manipulation with how he words his question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Fair question at first look, right? People have been asking this through the centuries. Maybe you’ve asked this yourself? Perhaps its why you’re even sitting here this morning. But go back, listen again to his question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” What must I DO. I DO. Sounds like one of those self-made rich, successful people of our own age. I’ve made it this far. What must I DO to go all the way? How do I need to work the system to get what I want? What must I manipulate? (Keeping in mind that manipulate does not always mean dishonesty or working it negatively.)
And, no surprise, Jesus is paying attention. He hears the “What must I DO…” and answers that question. If it is up to you, be perfect. Obey the law. The guy insists that he has. And Jesus takes the next step, not just the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law – surrender completely, put God not just first but as the only one on the list, put all others ahead of yourself, follow Jesus like your eternal life depends on it. That is what he must do. How he must work the system. And he sees that he can’t do it. Hey rich man, no one can.
However, if the man was paying attention, if he had stuck around, he would have seen that before him as one economic system that he can’t work or manipulate – God’s economy.
In just 20 verses of Mark (they will be our next two Sundays of gospel readings) we are going to begin to see the grace and mercy that fuel God’s economy unfold in the passion of Jesus the messiah. For we are only 20 verses away from the account of that day when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem riding on a donkey, that day we call Palm Sunday and he proceeded to walk the way of the cross through what we call Holy Week. In fact, where this morning’s portion of chapter 10 started, we read that Jesus was setting out on a journey. It was referring to the fact that he was on his way to Jerusalem where he would face his passion and death. A passion that displays beyond a doubt that there is nothing that WE can do to inherit eternal life. However, GOD in Christ has done EVERYTHING so that we can inherit eternal life. If only the rich man had asked a different question. If only he had let go of the idea that it was all about him or us needing to manipulate for our gain. If only he had asked: “What must GOD do so that I can inherit eternal life?” And that’s why Jesus says its hard for the one in control, the one who is used to holding all the cards, the ones who themselves are used to working the system, that’s why it is hard for the likes of them to enter the kingdom. Not that they will be kept out, but in that when they do enter they will be holding none of what they feel has defined them, none of what they think they need to do or have to get what they want and need, they will be holding none of what earth calls riches. For all of us, rich or poor on earth, enter the kingdom of God with nothing of our own because all is provided for in the grace and mercy of God, through Jesus the Christ, as revealed to us by the work of the Holy Spirit. And this surrender is not only an end of life matter. When we wisely surrender to God’s economy even now, today, in this life, God’s kingdom can be revealed to us.
Hebrews says it beautifully – we hold fast to this confession that God is God, and Jesus has saved us, and only because of that, can we approach the throne of grace with boldness. (And it certainly helps that Jesus knows what it means to suffer, what it means to be treated unjustly, what it means to feel abandoned by God, what it means to die alone and rejected.) There is no need for us to manipulate God’s economy. For in Christ, God surrenders all for us, so that we might have all by God’s grace.
Manipulation is not just the word for today. Once again, Mark is giving us a great thread to tie things together for deeper meaning. This 10th chapter, this final chapter of earthly ministry is all about manipulation. Last week, it was leaders manipulating the law. Today, this rich man wants to sincerely know how to manipulate God’s economy. Stay tuned for next week, when some surprising characters are seeking to manipulate power.
Till then, be at peace, for where our God of love rules, there is no need for manipulation on our part, only surrender to our reliance on God’s mercy and grace that is ours through Christ Jesus who gifts us with new life in the Spirit for the living of this day and all eternity.
The Rev. Mark Erson,